Making of a Championship: Part 1—The Galvanizing Moment
The state of Colorado has always been a hotbed for rally sports in North America. From the iconic Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and Rally Colorado to the dozens of racers who call the Centennial State home, it’s hard to imagine a Rally America National Championship without the many Coloradans who have had a hand in it over the years.
Lately, though, one group has stood out above all the rest. Brothers Dave and Mike Brown have not only become the dominant force in the quickly growing Open Light class, they also climbed their way to the top of the overall Rally America National Championship standings in 2018. Despite going up against top-tier Open class entries at almost every event, the Browns’ six podium finishes were enough to secure the first-ever overall national title for an Open Light class vehicle.
But what makes their ascent to the top of the rally world even more impressive is just how far they’ve come in such a short time.
“Even now, the results are amazing to me and it's hard to believe,” says Dave Brown. “Overall National Champions? Overall podium finishes in every race we didn't have major motor issues? Multiple new records? In a home built Open Light car? In only our second season? I would have never believed it was possible, but it happened. And not by accident. Dedication, determination and commitment were the keys. Nothing was going to stop me from doing the absolute best I could, and I blew my goals away.
“For me, it wasn't until a couple hours after the season was officially over that all the ups and downs and endless hours of hard work all came crashing down on me and I realized what we had really done. It was such an emotional release, I couldn't help but tear up. We really did it!”
“Dave and I both grew up racing all types of wheeled vehicles, and rode dirt bikes since we were young,” adds Mike. “All those experiences built a solid foundation that can be applied to a wide variety of racing. It provides us the ability to read lines, read terrain, understand braking points, feel the ‘edge,’ and all sorts of skills that are part of our subconscious, it seems. We’re pretty new to rally, but not racing in general.
“We also spent a year cutting our teeth running hill climbs here in Colorado. The hill climbs allowed us to figure out what works inside the car and allowed Dave to gain speed as he became more confident in his abilities and my pace note calls.”
That hill climb experience came in handy during the championship season. But after one crucial incident just last year, it’s incredible to both brothers to think about how easily none of this could have ever happened.
During the 2017 Temple Canyon Hill Climb, an event on the Colorado Hill Climb Association schedule, a major incident sent the Browns off the road and into the air. Multiple heavy impacts left Mike with a broken back and Dave wondering where the duo would go from there.
“The Temple Canyon crash was awful,” Dave says. “It was the lowest point in my short rally career and, in the moment, the lowest point of my life. I was really hard on myself. We were on our last qualifying run and we were really cooking through a tight twisty section that took us up over a hill and down into a left turned that tightened. I carried too much speed and we slid sideways off the road toward large rocks and a deep drainage ditch.
“I kept the throttle pinned to try to keep the wheels spinning so they wouldn't dig in and flip us over when we went into the ditch. We hit the rocks and ditch hard and it launched us in the air and sent us flying about 40 feet down the road in a flat 180 degree spin where we landed hard again. As soon as we hit the first big rock Mike was yelling in pain and every hit after that was worse. When we stopped he kept saying ‘My back, my back’ and he was in a ton of obvious pain.
“At the time, I was horrified that my brother might be paralyzed or in permanent pain because of me. I did my best to help calm him and keep him still. I got out and went to his door but it was pinned shut by the front wheel and fender so I kicked at the fender as hard as I could be able to get the door open. It felt like forever but the ambulance eventually made it there and took Mike to the hospital and left me with my mangled car. My only thought was to get to the hospital to be with Mike, even if I had to run there.”
“The Temple Canyon incident seems like forever ago,” Mike says. “I suffered compression fractures to my T4 and T5 vertebrae. There was no surgery needed, so the recovery consisted of lying in bed for weeks and gobbling down pain pills. Any sort of movement twists your upper torso, so it was an excruciatingly painful few weeks.
“I told my brother in the ER just hours after the crash that I would get back in the car. I’m not sure if that was all the IV narcotics talking though!”
“I couldn't say sorry enough, but even in massive pain, Mike reassured me that it was ok and that it was just racing,” Dave continues. “In my head I was thinking, ‘I hurt my brother badly, I significantly wrecked my car, I'm done racing.’ In the week that followed Mike found out that his back would heal on its own without surgery and that he would hopefully be completely pain free in time. Upon hearing this I resolved in my head to spend as much time and money as it took to get the car running again before Rally Colorado so that I could make it up to Mike, but only if he wanted to get back in the car.
“Mike was still in pain, but when I asked whether he wanted to ride with me again, he never even hesitated to say he did and just like that I was back. I watched the in-car video many times to see what went wrong and how I could have messed up so badly, but like Mike said, it was just racing. Several different factors all converged in one instant and suddenly there was nothing I could do. I definitely learned a lot from that crash though.”